“She’s a mom, not a moron.” So says a lascivious older man to his closeted young boy toy, played by up-and-coming star Jonathan Tucker (The Virgin Suicides) in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s melodramatic thriller The Deep End. Tilda Swinton, the Scottish actress best known for her role in Sally Potter’s gender-bending Orlando, plays the mother of a gay child whose lover’s body she finds empaled on her boat’s anchor. Uncertain as to what role her child has played in the death, the desperate woman does everything within her power to conceal the body and fight off a handsome blackmailer (played by “ER” doc Goran Visnjic). He’s mysterious but has a heart of gold and one naughty videocassette that links Beau to the dead man.
Sexually repressed, isolated from her husband, and incapable of openly broaching the subject of homosexuality, Margaret’s role as a woman and mother is put through the emotional wringer in this film-noirish thriller that skittishly gives face to the moral implications of repressed sexuality and muted familial communication. Swinton is no stranger to such incisive discourse, having made a career out of playing fiendish, gender-defying divas from her early work with the late filmmaker/activist Derek Jarman (Edward II) to Female Perversities and the upcoming Teknolust. Swinton can be seen later this year in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky and Spike Jonze’s genre-defying Adaptation.
Slant Magazine spoke with Swinton, Tucker and directors McGehee and Siegel about the issues of sexuality, motherhood and compassion that imbue The Deep End, one of the most evocative and talked about films of the year.
Tilda, can you talk about your character Margaret’s role in the film as the mother of a gay child?
Tilda Swinton: There is a way in which one can discuss the whole subject of sexuality and eroticism in the film with no real significance to the fact that he is gay. Scott and David decided to make the character a gay son because in the original Blank Wall—and also the Max Ophüls adaptation of the book, The Reckless Moment—[Beau’s character is] a girl. She’s involved with a sleazy art dealer and she’s sending him compromising love letters. I think Scott and David felt that in order to update the book you need something that is reality-threatening for Margaret and a few love letters is not that rich for a blackmail deal. I think it is a good decision, again, because I think the fallout of that means that she is very isolated. I imagine that that moment of the beginnings of sexual activity in your child, of whatever gender, is sort of the main territory of this. My instinct is that Margaret is not threatened by the actual sexuality as much as by sexuality itself.
There is a beautiful moment in the film where Margaret approaches Beau about his sexuality. Your character never says the word “gay” but he knows exactly what she is talking about. There is a brutal honesty about her defense mechanism. How did you and Jonathan come to create such frankness?
TS: The crisis we’re in at the beginning is that the son has had a life-threatening car crash. He’s been drinking, running with some loose individual, whatever his sexuality. Her attitude might be different with a girl; she might be able to be more direct. But the specifics of the sexuality, I think, are not the real meat for her. The real meat for her is that it’s a mortal issue. Right at the beginning of the film we’re in a mortal land. He’s been in a car crash. When you talk about her being the mother of a gay son, well, first and foremost she is the mother of a son.
David Siegel: It’s hard enough for anymore, we would imagine, to talk to their child about their sexuality. Her child is dealing with his sexuality in a way that is somewhat closeted and he hasn’t come to terms with [it] yet. We just wanted that hesitancy that creates a kind a constriction in communication to feel true.
How much did Tilda’s casting have to do with her being a “gay icon”?
DS: We weren’t really thinking about that when we cast her.
Jonathan, have you ever been advised to steer away from projects like The Deep End because of their explicit nature?
Jonathan Tucker: Not really. The only explicit thing was the sex scene but I thought it was such an important moment in the film. It really becomes the whole impetus for Tilda and her character to really be as driving as she is through the whole film. For a mother to see her son in a sexual light is really powerful, to have that kind of confirm everything that she really knew. I’m really glad I did it. All these films are coming out with gay characters. I read at least four or five scripts at the same time: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Deep End, and a number of other projects. This was such an interesting character to play and more interesting than all these other little characters.
Can you talk about the imagery in the film: the shots of water, the sounds of water? I thought all of that was very evocative.
DS: Thank you.
How did all of that come about?
DS: To some degree it germinated from the story itself. It’s a story that happens around water and the idea of having to hide a body in the water. Out of the lake itself and the environment around the lake came the color palette—the blue—and the idea of trying to use water in a broad metaphorical way to speak about Margaret’s character. As Tilda likes to say, [she’s] underwater and kind of surfacing slowly as the film progresses. We wanted people to be able to feel the emotional resonance that hopefully the resolution of the movie has.
There is this element of the unsaid in the film. In the end, Margaret is huddled in the fetal position on the bed. What is your view of Beau’s relationship to Margaret in that scene? It almost seems like he’s the one that is doing the nurturing.
Scott McGehee: That’s something that we like about this story: the way the mother and son shift positions throughout the middle of the film. The movie starts with her watching his sexual awakening with a certain amount of anxiety and, about midway through, he is suddenly looking at her in a relationship that he doesn’t understand. Suddenly he is looking at her in much the same way that she was looking at him when the film began. There were a number of scenes that we tried to construct in a very parallel manner. There is a car accident that begins the story where she is rushing to his side and then it’s a different kind of accident at the end. He’s the person to help her through the emotional crisis of that accident.
DS: By the end of the movie there is this idea that they are able to share a different kind of space because of that inversion. The love that they speak of at the end of the film is something primordial and important for them.
Do you think Beau was aware of what Margaret did?
SM: It’s sort of an open question, I guess, but certainly they haven’t talked about things. That’s sort of what [Beau] says in that final scene: I don’t need to know. The idea being that they are somehow connecting beyond the specific events of the story. Tilda was saying last night that that is a kind of prison for [Margaret]. [Beau] not needing to know means that [Margaret] has no one to tell.